Kathy Hepinstall’s latest is an unusual Civil War-era novel that combines the appeal of historical fiction, romance, and suspense. Iris is a happy young woman who comes of age knowing the luxury of marrying a man who truly interests her. Unfortunately, life with her new husband brings Iris face to face with the ugliness of slavery. When she objects to the way his slaves are treated, her husband is embarrassed by her behavior and has her committed to an asylum, hoping it will change her into a properly compliant wife.
This brings to mind a novel from across the pond, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (Harcourt, 2007). In present day Edinburgh, a young woman receives a phone call asking her to pick up her great-aunt from an insane asylum that is closing its doors. She never knew she had a great-aunt. It turns out Esme was institutionalized at age 16 for failing to match society’s expectations of how a young woman should behave. (Esme’s file reveals merely that her parents found her ”dancing before a mirror, dressed in her mother’s clothes.”) She had been locked up in the asylum for over 60 years.
The two would make a great booktalk pairing.
Adult/High School–Dr. Cowell, a recognized expert in all forms of lunacy, treats patients at the Sanibel Asylum. The island sanctuary is home to a quirky set of inmates who come to be made whole again. As the Civil War rages on, the asylum becomes a retreat for those with wounded spirits. Iris is an independent woman who, responding to the cruelty and injustice her plantation-owning husband invokes on his slaves, creates a tragedy she cannot forget and for which she is sentenced to the asylum. While she is clearly not a lunatic, she does not fit into the expected norm for women of her time. The egotistical Dr. Cowell is determined to “fix” her and yet becomes fascinated by her quick mind and spirit. She quickly decides to plan an escape, even as she begins to interact with the others who inhabit the asylum. She falls in love with Ambrose, a soldier suffering from the horrors of the war, and is certain that her love will cure him. Iris takes advantage of the doctor’s lonely 12-year-old son to help her plan and execute her escape, which now includes Ambrose. Told in short chapters from varying points of view, Blue Asylum has a depth of story and theme. It is rich, vibrant, and poignant as it leads readers through the thoughts, fears, and dreams of its characters. Teens will not believe that women could be condemned as lunatics for behavior that would be considered normal today, and Ambrose most certainly is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. A fascinating look at psychology, loneliness, trauma, and love.–Connie Williams, Petaluma High School, CA